John Ford

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Bert Glennon (cinematographer, left) and John Ford on the set of Stagecoach

John Martin Feeney (February 1, 1894 – August 31, 1973), known professionally as John Ford, was an American film director. He is remembered both for Westerns such as Stagecoach (1939), The Searchers (1956), and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), as well films in other genres such as The Grapes of Wrath (1940).


  • The people who say such things are crazy. I am a Northerner, I hate segregation, and I gave jobs to hundreds of Negroes at the same salary the whites were paid. I had production companies hire poverty-stricken Indians and pay them the highest Hollywood salaries for extras. Me, a racist? My best friends are black: Woody Strode, and a caretaker who has worked for me for thirty years. I even made Sergeant Rutledge, about a character who was not just a nice black guy but someone nobler than anybody else in the picture. They wouldn't let me make that picture because they said that a movie about a 'nigger' wouldn't make any money and couldn't be exhibited in the South. I got angry and told them they could at least have the decency to say 'Negro' or 'colored man,' because most of those 'niggers' were worth better than they. When I landed at Omaha Beach there were scores of black bodies lying in the sand. Then I realized that it was impossible not to consider them full-fledged American citizens.
    • Responding to the observation by French film critic Samuel Lachize that "some people detected—wrongly, Lachize added—some racist aspects in his work"; as quoted in "Notes of a Press Attaché: John Ford in Paris, 1966" by Tavernier, Film Comment (July 1994), p. 69
  • What? [...] I understood the question but what does it mean? [...] I don't have a method. I tell them what to do. They do it. If I'm not satisfied, I correct their errors, I tell them to raise their voice, or to emphasize such-and-such sentence, and they do it again; that's all. Anyway, most of the time the actors are very good friends of mine and I know their personality and their range. There's no method involved there."
    • Respective responses to the questions "How do you direct your actors?", "What is your method to direct actors" and "I don't know... how do you make your actors play?"; op. cit.
  • Maureen O'Hara is one of the actresses I most dislike. Everybody thought I was her lover. Actually, I hated her and she hated me, but she was right for the parts.
    • Op. cit., pp. 72
  • Never. It's awful. When I am asked why I hardly ever move the camera, I answer that the actors are better paid than the stagehands and grips, so it's normal that they should work and move about a little more. You should never use technical gimmicks to create emotion.
    • When asked if he had ever employed a crane shot; op. cit., p. 75

Quotes about Ford

In alphabetical order by author or source.
  • I think "laconic" is a good word for John Ford and for his technique of direction. No big deal about communication with John. Terse, pithy, to the point. Very Irish, a dark personality, a sensitivity which he did everything to conceal, but once he said to me while I was doing a scene with Ray Massey, "Make it scan, Mary." And I said to myself, "Aha! I know you now!".
  • Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath and the subsequent John Ford movie promulgated a populist mythology about depression-era migrants to California who were dubbed "Okies," no matter what southwestern or midwestern state they hailed from. But most Californians regarded Okies as dirty, shifty, lazy, violent, and ignorant.
  • He was the first to dare use very lengthy long takes, going against Hollywood rules. He wouldn't cut to a closer shot. No one has been able to generate as much emotion as Ford does in long shots; watch The Grapes of Wrath and Young Mr. Lincoln.
    • Elia Kazan, as quoted in "John Ford in Paris" by Bertrand Tavernier, Film Comment (July 1994)
  • John Ford came in and I was very scared of him. A rough character. I heard he despised the English, so I invented an Irish grandfather and told tales to him that simply were not true. [...] I found Ford to be a very curmudgeonly taskmaster, but always very fair. He always knew what he wanted in a scene. He never overshot. God help you if you didn't deliver what he wanted. And he liked me well enough that I finally told him that my Irish grandfather was fictional. He roared over that one. We've been close friends ever since. He used me a lot over the next few decades.
    • Anna Lee, circa 1980s, speaking with James Bawden about her first encounter with Ford, who had replaced William Wyler on How Green Was My Valley at the last minute; as quoted in Classic Film Stars: Interviews from Hollywood's Golden Era (2016), p. 210
  • He didn't direct you. He never told you what to do. He would talk to you, mostly about something completely different, and you find yourself doing the right thing. It was really very spooky—what he did.
    • Anna Lee, speaking in 1983 with Ron Miller; op.cit.
  • A good picture, as we all know, starts with a story. The next thing is to tell that story pictorially. [...] Fast-moving, pictorial, not overloaded with dialogue. You could see that picture without dialogue and know what it was all about. That was the secret of John Ford's pictures. You could run any one of his pictures silent, and you'd still know what they were all about.
  • This man directs less than any man in the business. As a matter of fact, he doesn't direct—he doesn't want any actor to give an impression of him playing the part. He wants the actor to create the part—that's why he hired him, because he saw him in this part.
    • Arthur Miller, op. cit., p. 80
  • John Ford was the quintessential American director, an intuitive film maker with no intellectual pretensions who made movies as he wanted to make them, and in the end found them to be as popular with the buffs as with the general public. ... And the true test-of his genius is the fact, that, as cinema fashions have come and gone, his reputation has seldom faltered.
  • Godard and [Ingmar] Bergman have always admired him, Mr Nixon says he loved him and those who have nothing but disrespect for the average commercial movie will seldom hear a word against John Ford. Yet at the same time he has also been accused of everything under the sun from being a political reactionary to a moral sentimentalist. There was no doubt that he could make awful movies that extolled the American way of life in the most simplistic way. There was no doubt also that the old values of rough frontiersman integrity suited him best...
  • I only met John Ford once. On the steps of MGM one evening. We were introduced by mutual friends. People spend a lot of time comparing my work to his. Most of that's bullshit. First of all, I don't like most of his later films. I love The Informer and Grapes of Wrath and—what was that other one?—Tobacco Road. His best Western is My Darling Clementine. Fonda was sensational in that. I hated The Searchers. I loved the book but I thought the movie was shit. But I suppose he didn't like much of what I did, either. I think we're very different.
  • As for the director, John Ford, from my first meeting with him to the day the picture was completed I knew I was in the hands of the consummate professional. I felt safe and secure with him. If I argued a line of dialogue with him or objected to a bit of business, I can now assure you it was more to assert my ego than it was to attack him. Almost entirely throughout the film, when we clashed, it turned out he was right and I was wrong. The main point to be made is that he would sit me down and show me where I was wrong. He is a totally remarkable director and one of the few deserving a place in the Pantheon. I'm told he's aging now, and cranky; well, I'm aging now, and cranky, but I bet if the right script came along (and Jo Swerling were still around to write it), John Ford and I could knock the shit out of it.
  • Very early, I was a film buff.... I learned from everything. You learn for just meeting John Ford.
    • Bertrand Tavernier, as quoted in "Personalities: The Straight Scoop" edited by Janis Johnson, Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday Magazine (November 30, 1986), p. 8
  • I never make visual references to Ford in my films, but I did remind my cameraman of Ford's very economical use of the close-up and careful handling of space. The first close-up of John Wayne in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon comes after 40 minutes! One of the top stars of the time! Still, he is incredibly powerful and present in the film. So I tried to do something similar here, partly in reaction to so many films shot today in the style of TV. I wanted to do an intimate story in wide shots, and it seemed appropriate, because the audacious use of space would emphasize the historical dimensions. That's also Ford, because my film is about values, and Ford's always are, too. Ford is one of the few classic American directors whose emphasis is on the collective rather than on the individual. I have read critics who believe he is reactionary, but they forget not only how nonjudgmental he is; he has a sense of the group's responsibility, of their mutual need. In Rio Bravo, John Wayne says, "This is work for a professional," but not in Yellow Ribbon, where they come and say, "How can we help?".
    • Bertrand Tavernier, in "La Guerre n'est pas Finie: An Interview with Bertrand Tavernier and Philippe Noiret" by Karen Jaehne, Cinéaste (January 1, 1990), p. 13
  • Sometimes Ford failed to grasp the meaning of a question that a European director, or American directors like Elia Kazan, Richard Brooks, Delmer Daves, or Sam Fuller would have had no trouble assimilating. For example: How do you direct your actors? Ford couldn't understand the rationale for such a question. It seemed truly odd to him. Not dumb--like the radio journalist who asked him about "Fantastic Ride" [La Chevauchee fantastique is the French release title of Stagecoach]--but odd, and he didn't know what to answer. Since he was physically rather intimidating, with his one eye that seemed to peer deep inside of you and his piratelike countenance, even the bold could easily get flustered.
    • Bertrand Tavernier, "Notes of a Press Attaché: John Ford in Paris, 1966" Film Comment (July–August 1994), p. 69
  • You won't like what I am going to say, because the people who I admire are the least-valued by cinema intellectuals; it seems like a tragic misunderstanding to me. My favorite filmmaker is De Sica: I know I'm upsetting you. And John Ford. But the Ford of twenty years ago, the De Sica of twelve years ago.
  • I've only been influenced by somebody once: prior to making Citizen Kane, I saw Stagecoach forty times. I didn't need to learn from somebody who had something to say, but from somebody who would show me how to say what I had in mind; and John Ford is perfect for that.
    • Orson Welles, op. cit., p. 76
  • The only director who does not move either his camera or his actors very much, and in whom I believe, is John Ford. He succeeds in making me believe in his films even though there is little movement in them. But with the others I have the impression that they are desperately trying to make Art.
  • Stanley Kubrick and Richard Lester are the only ones that appeal to me—except for the old masters. By which I mean John Ford, John Ford and John Ford.[...] With Ford at his best, you feel that the movie has lived and breathed in a real world.
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